Hyperbole speaking, 2017 was a disastrous year of film. That’s not to say that cinema was bad – as is evident by the ease in which I could choose a Top 10 (with an additional 10 Honourable Mentions) it’s quite the opposite – but had I not attended the BFI London Film Festival on consecutive years, I’d have a lot less to write about. Rather, cinema for me was bad: of the approximate 76 films I saw this year, only 13 were planned cinema trips (not including the additional 28 from LFF), meaning that there are some potentially glaring omissions that people would no doubt call me on without this caveat. This isn’t wholly through defiance of largely popular films e.g. Moonlight or Paddington 2, it just means that I couldn’t find the time to see them.
Fifty percent of this year’s choices were seen at the 2016 edition of LFF, yet because I’m old-fashioned and staunchly against including films not yet released, they have deservedly fought off competition to find themselves included here in their actual year of release: 2017. This approach is why some, such as Guillermo del Toro’s interspecies love story The Shape of Water and Martin McDonagh’s bleakly impressive Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, aren’t included (though both definitely hang large over this year). Let’s assume they’ll be included in next year’s retrospective unless 2018 delivers 10 films that are somehow even better.
But for now, onto my Top 10 of 2017 (January through December)!
10. Dunkirk (d. Christopher Nolan)
In name, Christopher Nolan can spark more fervent disagreement or conversation than most current directors. He’s undeniably an auteur, though how much you agree with that classification depends on which parts of his filmography you side with: his major studio productions (The Dark Knight Trilogy, Inception), or his smaller, more personal films (Memento, The Prestige). Those with even the scantest grasp of film will have an opinion on his output, and for every entry in his lousy D.C. threesome (fight me), there’s the near perfection of Dunkirk: a film so exquisitely steeped in adrenaline and terror that it’s impossible to even consider it in the same breath as the rest of his catalogue. His first venture into history, Dunkirk follows three individual stories – one by land, one by air and the other by sea – over the span of a single day during the Dunkirk evacuation. Once again, Nolan has expertly elasticised time by interweaving these stories of valiance, camaraderie and sheer panicked confusion over one day, coupled with another excellent Hans Zimmer score and a near-continual bed of a ticking clock that further ratchet tension. Though it does (infrequently) mine the veins of melodrama, it’s a testament to Nolan that he displays a sensitivity and factuality to the horrors of war, while still supplying an immense amount of technological spectacle. It’s down to his talented filmmaking that Dunkirk benefits from employing locations and visible human emotion as the prominent story-tellers, rather than tangible “main characters” and explicit monologues. It’s immersive cinema at its very finest.
9. Good Time (d. Josh and Benny Safdie)
Over the course of one hedonistic, chaotic evening, Good Time takes the After Hours template of one man’s quest at the whim of external forces and shoves it off a high-rise balcony. Robert Pattinson commands the screen more than ever as the greasy small-time crook Connie who enlists his mentally challenged younger brother to assist him in a bank robbery. Obviously, nothing turns out fine, but director brothers Benny and Josh Safdie have finely tuned their script to keep this wildly inventive crusade from turning stale: even with its purposefully muted ending, Good Time is never once dull or generic. Featuring on-the-cuff improvisation (from character, not actor), morally questionable judgments and a bizarre, at-first-irrelevant detour, Good Time is a schizophrenic and deeply tragic pulse-pounding odyssey that challenges the audience’s culpability in the impromptu crimes committed. Parallel to this hysteria is Sean Price Williams’ photography and the production/set designers whose visual ferality and frantic close-ups – alongside Oneohtrix Point Never’s furiously booming synth score – kept me constantly balanced on the edge of my seat, constantly trying to seek justification for Connie’s selfish, corrupted actions.
Original review here.
8. La La Land (d. Damien Chazelle)
La La Land – Damien Chazelle’s follow-up to the critically-lauded Whiplash – is about as life-affirming as it comes. Mia (Emma Stone) and Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) play star-crossed lovers navigating a new-found relationship while balancing humdrum jobs and unflinching devotion to their envisioned careers (actor and musician respectively) in Hollywood. Chazelle allows us to witness the rise and fall of their connection through the changing of the seasons and numerous failed auditions, revealing over time that following their dreams in showbiz ought not to be achieved alone, but often must be. Sensuality and denial are entwined as Chazelle and cinematographer Linus Sandgren adopts swooping long takes, fade-out spotlights, and iris ins/outs to give providence to a script that is as in love with its characters as much as they are with each other. Acutely revering classics such as Singin’ in the Rain and The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, La La Land is a passionate, judged film that emits affection from every frame, culminating in an emotional and electrifying ode to the dreamers and lovers of the L.A. boulevards, and with some of the most dynamic colour pallets, it’s also one of the most beautiful.
Original review here.
7. A Monster Calls (d. J.A. Bayona)
If there were ever a film that should be required viewing for all ages, it’s this one. The Orphanage‘s J.A. Bayona adapts Patrick Ness’ novel of the same name, wherein bullied youngster-from-a-divorced-family Conor O’Malley (the terrific Lewis McDougall), must confront his impending maturity in the face of a terminally ill loved one. Conor transports himself from his solitary youth via a series of allegorical tales spun by colossal Ent-like Monster (Liam Neeson). Seldom mawkish and softly handled, these four stories utilise splashes of multi-coloured ink, or paper-folded craft to contradict the painful parable which each of them is expressing to Conor. Each story is didactic, yet purposefully withholds the final moral until the significance of Conor’s situation is fully revealed. To some audiences, this can be seen as emotional manipulation, but Bayona aims for the heart in a quietly devastating way that informs the audience that grief never need be tackled alone, and hit his target more than once. Though there are many stories of loss that use conventional fantasy to embody the imminent issues the main character faces, very few have handled grief this sensitively or beautifully.
Original review here.
6. The Killing of a Sacred Deer (d. Yorgos Lanthimos)
Colin Farrell plays Steven: a distinguished cardiovascular surgeon whose private life incorporates peculiar eccentricities typical of Yorgos Lanthimos and co-writer Efthimis Filippou’s creatively offbeat writing. Steven’s wife Anna (Nicole Kidman) is an equally talented ophthalmologist, and both are parents to Kim (Raffey Cassidy) and Bob (Sunny Suljic), two youngsters who excel in academia. Fracturing this household is Martin (Barry Keoghan), a 16-year-old whose motivations are clouded by a subtlety that Keoghan promotes with unadorned brilliance. Standing tall amongst such established stars as Farrell, Kidman and Bill Camp, Keoghan commands the film and carries all of the expository scenes with an unnerving fluency. On top of a constant feeling of unease that builds with character is Thimios Bakatakis’s clinical cinematography and the startling, piercing sound mixing that obliterates the silence in some scenes in a way that’s far scarier than the vast majority of professed horror films. Lanthimos’ second American feature is an unkind one: with a threatened resolution that’s difficult to stomach, and a general unpleasant ambiguity, the fantastical elements through Lanthimos’ conventionally mechanical responses further a sense of otherworldly paranoia. His typical idiosyncracies are what makes his naysayers baulk at the idea of it being included in best-of lists, but he’s a director whose dispassionate unapproachability is something that I’m fully on board with during this trend of noisy, clattering studio blockbusters.
5. My Life as A Courgette (d. Claude Barras)
Intensely charming and heartbreakingly truthful, My Life As A Courgette sees an abused boy attempt to find kinship within a care home for similarly abused children. Much like A Monster Calls, there’s a vibrancy and cutesiness in its animation that belies a darker truth: these children have been at the epicentre of abuse, witnessed violent drug- or human-related deaths, or are at the centre of fierce, vitriolic custody battles between a torn family. It’s a major boon to Claude Barras’ film that, despite all these difficult themes, it’s also frequently hilarious. These orphaned children talk with a frankness about sex, love, and violence, at the same time testing the generosity of their carers with a cheeky twinkle of their bizarrely shaped eyes. It’s a tough watch, but the tenderness of its script and the astute prevention of demonising some of the plainly hideous behaviours of the adults makes it all the more poignant and bittersweet. Simply put, it’s one of the greatest animated films of the 2010s.
Original review here.
4. The Florida Project (d. Sean Baker)
Energetic, hilarious and sympathetic, Sean Baker’s The Florida Project is a film firmly rooted in reality, though it never forgets to show the whimsical, joyous nature of childhood friendships. Future star Brooklynn Prince plays Moonee, a precocious six-year-old causing all manner of playful mischief around the motel she resides, as well neighbouring residences, abandoned tourist villas and a nearby woodland. Her playful mischief is the heart and soul of The Florida Project: the effusive way in which she adopts the crude language and a smart-arse attitude that she’s seen on TV or heard from the motel’s residents is utterly charming. She’s a deeply rich character who avoids obnoxious, mawkish development by Prince’s impressive work, and her final scene in the doorway of Jancey’s room takes her from wonderful newcomer to versatile truthfulness with a single, powerful word. Like American Honey – a less compassionate and a far more bloated snapshot into the lives on the fringes of society – The Florida Project is light on narrative, instead relying on the authenticity of those who populate it to carry its eternally simplistic story. With mostly newcomers, Baker’s film is inhabited by real-life unknowns (Willem Dafoe and Caleb Landry Jones notwithstanding) lending the film a legitimacy to its docu-drama style. By its sudden finale, you’d have to be deliberately trying not to grin from ear-to-ear.
Original review here.
3. A Ghost Story (d. David Lowery)
In 2013, David Lowery’s Ain’t Them Bodies Saints made it into my favourite films of that year: a touching, elegiac poem about a doomed romance, it was Lowery giving reverence to the American New Wave of cinema. A Ghost Story – his second feature to doom Rooney Mara and Casey Affleck for eternity – gives admiration not just to the style he expertly ascribed before, but to time itself. Following a fatal crash – Affleck’s C dons a pale white sheet, and views the passage of time from the stars all the way to the future, and back again. Utterly unexpected from its basic plot premise, it fascinates with some of the year’s best editing and sound mixing (featuring an incredible soundtrack by Daniel Hart). From Mara’s M leaving the house repeatedly to show her movement or the simplicity of light bulb shattering through dilapidation, each and every frame is filled with purpose and discipline to elevate the straightforward narrative. By the end, squinting through both joyful and sorrowful tears as C accepts his eternal fate, A Ghost Story hit me in a way I wasn’t expecting: it’s a quiet, softly spoken work of art about the cyclical nature of all life that plays with your emotions as deftly as it plays with the construct of time.
2. Blade Runner 2049 (d. Denis Villeneuve)
I don’t like Blade Runner. I don’t begrudge those that do, and I’ll never say that I don’t appreciate it’s lofty standing as people’s favourite science fiction film of all time, but I simply don’t like it. With its multiple cuts and a frustratingly unapproachable final act, Ridley Scott’s oft-called 1982 magnum-opus – though unanimously finding itself in the top spot of more sci-fi appreciation lists than I care to count – failed to ignite my lust for the world that Philip K. Dick created (I should mention that I’m no Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? defender). Delightedly, the sequel that “no-one wanted” – Blade Runner 2049 – blindsided me completely. Realistically, I shouldn’t have been apprehensive. Denis Villeneuve isn’t a stranger in my yearly retrospectives (Arrival was my #1 of 2016), and he has once again crafted a sci-fi that transgresses its origins, fleshes out its existence and builds to a staggeringly heartfelt ending. With Villeneuve, I knew it’d have a director with a history of expertise; with Roger Deakins, I knew the film would look stunning in every way, no matter how minuscule or vast the shot; and with Hampton Fancher, we knew that it wasn’t going to be a shoddily written cashed-in sequel. What I didn’t expect was how absolutely captivated I’d be from start to finish. Clocking in shy of 3 hours, Blade Runner 2049 is somehow blisteringly well-paced, even in spite of lengthy scenes of visually arresting images, each one atmospherically exposing its multitude of secrets that will doubtlessly require a second viewing. Not once was I waiting for a scene to wrap up, proof that with the most stunning cinematography – both real and manufactured – one can overlook minor stumbles in narrative or character. Like Dunkirk, Blade Runner 2049 amplifies the necessity to see films in the cinema. Hopefully, Villeneuve’s entry to the saga will cultivate a new generation of obsessives: I know I’m one of them.
1. The Handmaiden (d. Park Chan-wook)
What’s perhaps even more unexpected this year was that Park Chan-wook’s erotically charged psychological thriller would bat away the competition (I first saw it in October 2016) to become the most suspenseful, hilarious and outright brilliant heist movie of the last decade. Though I’m only familiar with Sarah Waters’ Fingersmith – the novel and the BBC adaptation – by name, Park’s transference from Victorian England to 1930s-era Japan is one of the many ways he seeks to wrong-foot the viewer. Taking intersecting moments and punctuating them with seemingly mundane conversation and activities with ulterior points of view, Park makes you feel damn sure that his twisty narrative is reaching an astute conclusion, before pulling the rug from under you again and again. Here, not only are the characters successfully duped, but the audience is as well. A few times – for differing reasons – The Handmaiden elicited shock and laughs from its audacious genre-bending and near-faultless craftmanship, but the deception isn’t the sole strength of the film: there’s a trio of fantastic leads that are completely engaging, each of them mustering multiple personalities within their sly characterisations. In a career that’s already hit multiple highs, The Handmaiden is Park’s first true masterpiece: a provocative, hyper-stylised and intricately woven story of duplicity, violence, and carnal desire that absolutely should not be missed.
Original review here.
Because I’m an inefficient, leisurely writer, I could have written a Top 20, but instead chose to relegate number 11-20 to this Honorable Mentions footnote. In no particular order, these are films that are no less worthy of your time just because I’ve written less: Manchester by the Sea (a nuanced and devastatingly raw portrayal of loss and bereavement, with fantastic performances across-the-board); Elle (Paul Verhoeven is back in full-force with a subversive story of rape-revenge that contained some of the biggest laughs of the entire year thanks to Isabelle Huppert’s dry magnetism); Certain Women (composed and compassionate, Kelly Reichardt’s story of four women whose lives interesect in a small Midwestern town is perfect for those who like elegance in their stories); Logan Lucky (Ocean’s Eleven without the glamour, it’s a superbly entertaining, often thrilling heist with a first-rate performance from Daniel Craig); Mindhorn (Julian Barrett is giddily funny in this spoof of televised police serials, and the rest of the cast are clearly relishing its peculiarities); It (a horror remake with ghost-train sensibilites, a group of excellent young performers, and one hell of a terrifying Pennywise); Logan (comic-book adaptations at their very best: brutal, raw, and thrilling); Toni Erdmann (totally unclassifiable, but completely engaging comedy-drama with one of the best father-daughter pairings in recent memory); Raw (skin-crawling coming-of-age-cannibalism that manages to surprise even in the face of convention); Star Wars Episode VIII: The Last Jedi (one of the greatest modern subversions of a franchise: Rian Johnson burns the rulebook and then some with ludicrous and fascinating results).
BFSR Award illustration header by cal.con.
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